When artist and author Den Streeff hired me to provide a manuscript evaluation for his fantasy novel, I was excited to dive into the world he’d created. And I was not disappointed. Streeff has a vivid imagination and is a natural storyteller. But what most impressed me were the conversations we had after I returned his manuscript.
He asked thoughtful questions, and he’d report back on the books he was reading to learn more about writing and point of view. He’s a real student of writer’s craft.
Learning about writer’s craft takes time and a great deal of effort. You have to find solid resources, study them, and practice what you’ve learned. Then try to synthesize that new knowledge in your own manuscript. So many authors feel pressure to publish quickly, so even if they want to learn more about writer’s craft, they end up skimping on their education.
I interviewed Streeff to find out what motivates him to invest in writer’s craft study.
Please introduce yourself and tell us about your writing.
Den Streeff: I am coming to writing from an art background. I grew up in New York, attended FIT in Manhattan, and went into the advertising business as a graphic artist. After about seventeen years, fed up with the hectic pace, the long hours, I decided to move to Provincetown to paint. Provincetown is located at the outer tip of Cape Cod, MA, and has been an artist and writer’s community for over a hundred years. We are surrounded by ocean and the interplay of light where water meets sky continues to inspire. Over the years I explored various forms of expressing myself with oil painting, pottery, stain glass, etc. I have been taking ongoing drawing classes, and have learned how to create white line prints.
Writing was always on my list of things to delve into. A few years ago I wanted to start a project with a close friend who had been visiting for the summer. I wrote three pages beginning a fictional fantasy tale, gave it to her, and asked her to add to it. The idea was to keep adding to the story, passing it back and forth, and see where it would go. She returned home to New York, and to her job as a teacher. The school season started taking over all of her time, and that was the end of that idea. She did manage to write a few pages before visiting the next February. I took those six pages and over the next nine months typed away, total pantser even before I knew that was a thing, and ended up with a manuscript.
I know that you spend a lot of time educating yourself about writer’s craft. Why is it important to you to learn about writing?
DS: This project has been my crash course into the world of writing. I am learning a new set of skills, and it’s important to me that I apply it to the best of my abilities. I am currently working on revisions, though honestly, I am thoroughly enjoying the whole process of learning, and perfecting my skill as I go. To me writing is another form of art, another way to express myself. Working on this story is just as rewarding as working an art project. After I had taken my story as far as I could, that’s when I hired you for a manuscript critique. With your excellent feedback I am now taking my novel to the next level while continuing to learn along the way.
Can you share what your process looks like when you’re wearing a “student writer” hat? How do you implement what you learn?
DS: An example of that would be POV, which I now realize I did not have a firm grasp on. When I first started reading more in-depth on the topic I became overwhelmed. Parts seems rather confusing, and I was getting mixed messages when I read something like no rules are cast in stone. Give me rules! Something to follow, a check list! I spent two months immersed in the subject, read two books cover to cover and numerous articles, until I felt I truly understood which POV I wanted to use for my current project. I didn’t write during that time except for jotting down notes which helped to reinforce what I was reading.
I am presently converting my story to Limited Third Person, with dips into Deep POV for three of the main characters. There are five POV perspectives, but the majority of the tale is told from my protagonist’s POV. It was originally written in a mix of omniscient and third person. Making the switch to Limited Third Person isn’t that hard, but it does take time.
What’s been your favorite thing about writing to study?
DS: I started writing on a whim, but the more I learned, the more excited I became. I love learning new things, and have never stopped taking classes. I wrote this story before I even knew what I was doing, it just poured out of me. I’ve spent the last few years educating myself, and applying what I learned with rounds of revisions, and with each revision, not only did the story improve, I improved as a writer. My favorite thing has been everything, the whole process, this open-ended journey that I am on.
Do you have resources you’d recommend for other authors who want to be student writers too?
DS: I prefer to write typing on the computer, and always have a window opened to: Powerthesaurus.org/ to instantly have a thesaurus at my fingertips. I usually have another window open for quick searches on whatever topic comes up. Like how is that word used in a sentence, or how something functions, was built, or is performed. I can most often quickly find the answers, and continue on with my writing.
One of the first books I bought to help me edit was The Writer’s Lexicon – Descriptions, Overused Words, and Taboos by Kathy Steinemann. It contains a list of overused words, and by swapping out those words, what I was trying to say or describe became clearer. The bonus is it forces you to write better.
Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody is a must-have for story structure and to hit all the plot points, or “beats,” that make up a good story.
Other resources I use are books by Marcy Kennedy and Rayne Hall. They offer short and to-the-point booklets on a range of topics.
Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi offer a range of thesauruses. The Emotional Thesaurus, Negative Traits, Positive Traits, Rural and Urban Settings, and The Emotional Wound Thesaurus have all came in handy.
An in-depth book on POV is by Maxwell Alexander Drake. Drake’s Brutal Writing Advice, Point of View, What’s the Point? was extremely helpful in my understanding Third Person Limited. He covers all the POVs.
Another resource is my subscription to Writer’s Digest. You can search their website for articles, and basically whatever you have a question on, there is an article covering it.
This practice requires a significant time investment. How do you resist the urge to skip this step, or save it for another time, and publish now?
DS: In my ignorance, I did jump to publish. I was so excited with having written a novel, I found a printer online and self-published fifty copies, which were given mostly to friends and family. Coming from an advertising background, I knew how to put together a design for a cover, I purchased an ISBN number and copyrighted my work. I have a dozen illustrations scattered throughout the story combining my talents, so that’s fun too. However, I soon realized I had printed my first draft. How embarrassing is that! It was soon after when I sat down to really educate myself in the craft.
Now I am determined to get it right. I’ll have to live with the final results, and what would annoy me more than anything is having to live with a story where I knew I could have done better if I had just taken a little more time. Investing in that time now will help my next story go smoother, with hopefully less errors. I have already received requests for a sequel and cannot wait to find out where my imagination will take me next.
NCA: Den, thank you so much for sharing a peek into your writing life and for the excellent list of resources. I’m looking forward to that sequel too! May the words flow and the revisions be easy.